When Google distributes cookies, it’s referring to the fragmentary pieces of text sent to a web browser to improve personalized ads. When Wing, the search leviathan’s subsidiary that makes deliveries by drone, talks about delivering cookies, it actually, well, delivers cookies. As in the baked, sometimes chewy confectionary sold door-to-door by Girl Scouts.
“We began talking to the local [Girl Scout] troop in Christiansburg [Virginia] about a month ago,” Lia Reich, global communications lead for Wing, told Digital Trends. “Even with loosening COVID restrictions, the traditional method of selling cookies outside of grocery stores or shops is difficult this year, and sales are down about 50% from prior years.”
So Wing decided to help and, in the process, publicly demo another possible use case for the eagerly anticipated (and, in some select locations, already happening) dream of drone delivery. Through the end of May, locals in Christiansburg — a quiet, restful town in Montgomery County, Virginia — can order their Girl Scout cookies to instead be delivered by drone, via the Wing app. The cookies will be packed up and flown direct to the customers’ home.
Reich said that Wing has “committed to 3,000 boxes of cookies, and if needed, we’ll do more.”
Reich described the Girl Scouts and Wing as natural partners when it comes to cookie deliveries during a pandemic. “It’s also an opportunity for the local Girl Scouts to learn about drone delivery, and become familiar with a technology that we hope will be widespread as they enter the workforce,” she said. “Girl Scouts has set a goal of getting 2.5 million girls into the STEM pipeline by 2025. We hope this partnership contributes to those efforts, by allowing local girls to experience drone-delivery technology and get a glimpse into various STEM-based career paths.”
This isn’t the first time, Reich continued, that Wing has helped out small businesses during the pandemic. The owner of the Christiansburg-based Mockingbird Cafe reported that drone delivery accounted for about 25% of its sales during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wing also helped deliver library books to kids stuck at home.
The big question about delivering cookies by drone is, of course, whether this could ever work practically in the world at large — not so much technologically (clearly, it can), but rather in terms of the nuts and bolts economics of it all. After all, you could buy the world’s top supercomputer to play Fortnite; that doesn’t necessarily make business sense, though. On the surface, cookies by drone risks smacking of the infamous Pets.com business model from the late 1990s, with its promise of selling $10 bags of cat litter that cost it $20 to deliver.
Reich makes a valid counterpoint. “It makes a lot more sense to deliver a one-pound box of cookies with a 10-pound drone than it does to do it with a 3,000-pound car,” she noted. “The efficiencies of drone delivery are many, and present a compelling business case for last-mile delivery, which can account for upwards of 50% of the total cost of shipping goods. In addition to the business case, drone delivery at scale will [also] bring about safer roads, faster deliveries, additional revenue for local business, and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”
According to Reich, Wing’s delivery drones are around 10x as efficient as some of the most efficient electric vehicles on the road today, and more than 50x more efficient than an average gasoline-powered vehicle. “Our drones are so efficient that when a customer orders a box of pasta from Wing, they typically use more energy boiling the water than we used delivering the package several miles to their home,” she said.
However you slice it, it’s still comparatively early days for drone deliveries. Trials remain limited to certain areas, as with Wing’s focus on Christiansburg. It’s faintly reminiscent of the microworlds that early A.I. systems and robots were frequently limited to. But to paraphrase Sally Field’s iconic and infamous Oscars speech: People seem to like them. They really like them.
Virginia Tech just this month released a survey from Christiansburg, with 87% of residents making approving noises about the prospect of residential drone delivery following its first year of service in the community. Clearly, there’s still work to do, but the prospect may not be as unlikely as some may think.
“We’ve seen incredible growth of the Wing service over the last year and a half,” Reich said. “COVID gave people who may not have had a reason to try drone delivery a reason to, and we saw deliveries increase more than 500% in 2020. The convenience of drone delivery has not only sustained that growth, but increased it, even as restrictions have lifted. Globally, Wing has completed more deliveries in the first three months of 2021 than in the last six months of 2020.”
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